'Rent' 20 years later
by Gregory Forrest
I recently saw "Rent" the musical during its 20th anniversary run. Twenty years? Time back then moved so slowly. Grief, sorrow, and visions of death were everywhere.
En route to the theater, I thought of 30 names of people whom I'd known who had died. Once the show began and I heard those glorious voices, my mood shifted.
Thank God new medications came out in 1996. Had they not, I would be dead. In the 1980s and into the 1990s doctors could not keep up with everything AIDS. They'd been as blindsided by AIDS as the rest of us.
We, as gay men, paid attention to as many articles and news stories as we could. There was nothing in place for us except us. We took on roles because we had no choice. If we were not sick, we helped our brothers.
We served as buddies, therapists, and support groups; delivered food; and provided rides to and from doctor's appointments. We cleaned each other's houses, washed dishes, prepared food, and did grocery shopping. We helped our friends first with our arm, then a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair, and finally, in and out of bed. We held our friends up with one hand as they showered, standing on the other side of the shower curtain.
We were it. We had nothing driving us except our abysmal terror and fear. We were dying. All of us were dying, one at a time and in large groups. Death was everywhere. Our gay men and lesbian women were the caretakers of our destiny.
The endless elevator rides up and down at hospitals. We cradled the sick and dying as they cried. We told them it would be OK even though we knew it would not. We had to take people's pets away from them. We tried not to break down. We, the caregivers, collectively cried.
At the time, many gay men were disowned by their families. They were gay and thus didn't exist. Families were generally not present or interested in helping their own children.
After death took our brothers, "family" would appear. They often ignored us, took what they wanted, tossed the rest, and left. No interest in their son's world or us. They seemed not to care. Often when a death occurred, that was it. No body, no funeral, nothing. Our friend was gone. We never got a chance to say goodbye. Never. Can you imagine? Witnessing all those deaths weekly yet having no time to grieve for any one person. We were grieving for everyone. Mass casualties – no graves.
Each week more of our own were in the hospital. Our weekends now became filled with sadness, funerals, and memorial services. No one cared but us. Unbearable. Thank God we had each other; we fought because we had no choice. Horribly painful and helpless memories. Would it ever end?
My childish notion that the dead were at cemeteries comforted me. Once at the cemetery, the warmth of the Los Angeles sun enveloped my body and soul. The warm gentle breeze of the Santa Ana winds bristled through my hair. I'd walk up the incline of "my" hill. I'd tread lightly on the crisp manicured lawn. Each strand of grass was a rich and luscious succulent green. Upward, the cotton candy clouds in the rich blue sky greeted me. The beauty of this scene held, soothed, and comforted me. Grief enveloped my cells. There was so much darkness. Hospitals, nurses, doctors, disbelief, hopelessness, exhaustion. IVs, walkers, tests, X-rays, wheelchairs, our men were skeletal.
This crying was deep guttural groans and moans. I had to try and let out my fear and sadness. An ocean of tears filled my eyes. My body quivered with this pulverizing grief. Too much. Make it stop, please. Who is next? Me? You? I just can't. I wanted to stay here, in this spot. Peaceful and away from death, misery, and sorrow.
I wanted to feel young and safe again. Those days were gone. I could no longer feel, even though in my early 20s. Life's bitter experiences robbed me of the naivety of my youth.
What about our new "gay freedom?" Hadn't our elders just won this for us? "Gay Pride" was now "Gay dead." We once again were the damned, doomed, and judged. Welcome to our "Gay Plague."
Desperate. Each day a dark cavernous pit. No ladder, tram, or elevator. No escape. Death's presence loomed.
I've surpassed my life expectancy many times over. The past no longer holds me captive. I will, however, never forget. I've survived. I'm still here and I'm so grateful to be alive. I want to impart this to our youth today. Collectively, we can fight. We did it then with pen, paper, and landline phones. Imagine what we can accomplish now.
Gregory Forrest has been in the Bay Area for 20-plus years. He's in his mid-50s, loves life, and is so grateful to be alive.